They just don't make documentaries like Festival anymore.
Subtitle: Folk Music at Newport, 1963-1966
Director: Murray Lerner
Cast: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger
Length: 98 minutes
UK release date: Import
US release date: 2017-09-12
The booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray of this special Criterion Collection edition of Festival is quite thick. At around 40 pages, it feels like you might spend the same amount of time reading the booklet as you would watching the movie. It wasn't until after I had seen Festival for the first time that I understood there's a reason for such a descriptive item tucked inside the case, and that is that this film was made at a time when documentaries gave the viewer little-to-no information about their subjects. There was no hand-holding in these old school narratives, you had to piece it all together yourself. Almost as if they were anticipating the potential frustration of 21st century viewing audiences, the people at Criterion have conveniently profiled all of the folk performers highlighted in the film.
Festival doesn't tell a story. It doesn't choose a few core folk artists to weave through the footage. It gives no background on the legendary Newport Folk Festival or the people behind it. Rather, it's a smattering of footage collected from 1963 to 1966, and best viewed as a historical document rather than an edifying one. This isn't to say that Festival is without teachable moments, but if context is what matters to you, you'll need to find a way to check that at the door. The only context you get is 1. this is the Newport Folk Festival, and 2. this footage comes from a three-year span in the '60s. If you need more than that, there's the supplemental material (more on that later).
The footage doesn't go in chronological order. After some shots of the crowd gathering on one of the festival's opening days, director Murray Lerner seems to make it a point to string together footage that shows the musical diversity within the American folk genre. First, there's Peter, Paul and Mary singing "If I Had a Hammer" followed by the Sacred Harp Singers, rehearsing what could be a Baptist hymn. Right after that, Southern gospel abruptly segues into square dancing. In a span of just a few minutes, Lerner reminds us that American folk music isn't as homogenous as the genre's critics would like you to believe.
And just to show that folk music is sometimes made by the people and for the people, Lerner occasionally takes his cameras out into the crowd to find people swapping songs and trading harmonica licks. This is probably the most interesting part about Festival, since it captures the mid-'60s counterculture before the beatniks gave way to the hippies. The youthful outrage over social injustice hadn't fully bloomed yet and the 20-somethings of this time were more concerned about smoking cigarettes, sleeping on their scooters, and being seen carrying their guitars around. Watching people wake up in their sleeping bags on the beach, you can see the seeds of Woodstock taking root. "You don't have to be an accomplished musician," enthused one young man in the crowd on the simplicity of folk music after we watch him and his buddies take part in a truly terrible sounding jam session.
A majority of the performers aren't represented by a full song being performed from start to finish. Two of the exceptions are Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The latter is portrayed in at least four key scenes, one of them being the full electric band rehearsal of "Like a Rolling Stone". The footage of Dylan's electric set that follows bears no sign of controversy. By the time we get to Howlin' Wolf's rowdy electric set, everyone is dancing and having a good time. You never would have thought that such antics would have moved someone to shout "Judas!" one night in 1966. Folk music's power as an overtly political tool is showcased in only one portion of one song of one performer (Donovan, in case you were wondering). All other harbingers of sweeping social changes and the fight for civil rights are subtly tucked away in gospel songs by The Freedom Singers and The Georgia Sea Island Singers.
Son House explains the blues, but it's Paul Butterfield's band and his guitarist that get more screen time. Baez gets to wax philosophical in the front seat of a car as she's being driven away from the festival. What she says is by no means new or exciting, but there is a funny moment when she is being surrounded by autograph hounds and someone asks her if she's getting writers cramp. "No, I'm getting a bloated ego," she quickly answers.
The "Making Of" segment of the Blu-ray does a superb job of coloring in the seemingly empty spaces created by the lack of a conventional narrative. In a more linear documentary fashion, the Murray Lerner of today and all of his assistants bring us up to speed on what the decision-making process was behind each aspect of Festival. It's Lerner's sidemen who do most of the talking, explaining the camera techniques, the interviewing techniques, and the choice of which performers to include (a daunting task, considering they probably had hundreds of great sets to sift through).
It's also in this bonus feature where we learn that, left to his own devices, Lerner might not have ever finished the movie. After a little arm-twisting from associate editor Alan Heim, he finally released Festival to a willing public. Arguably, a release date of 1967 was almost too late, considering the social and musical watersheds that were just about to happen. As far as the film's mysterious non-narrative, a quotation from assistant editor Gordon Quinn got to the heart of it: "Someone's not telling you what the connection is but we have shaped a thing, we have made a thing, and when you put two things together, you go 'Ah, I get it now.'"
Not only is Festival a wonderful time capsule of '60s folk music and the counterculture movement that grew alongside it, but it's also a wonderful time capsule for the documentary fan. They, quite literally, do not them them like this anymore.